Theodore Roosevelt’s life, bracketed between the turmoil of the American Civil War and the First World War, touched by the struggle to settle the West and the excesses of the Gilded Age, seemed filled with the high energies which propelled these events and the industry, innovation, and social movements that accompanied them. The issues he so vigorously championed throughout his career as a politician and author reflect not only his active nature and zeal for life, but the exciting, turbulent era in which he passed his days. Roosevelt’s varied interests were influenced not only by his life experiences, but by the people with whom he associated, people who could not fail, in turn, to be touched by Roosevelt’s passion and determination to succeed.
I have been privileged in cataloging letters from the Theodore Roosevelt Papers, part of the Library of Congress Manuscript collection, to learn more about Roosevelt’s personality and perspectives, not only through his own words, but through the lives, endeavors, and personalities of his correspondents. By learning more about Roosevelt, I have also learned more about other influential figures of the Progressive Era, contemporaries who shared Roosevelt’s interests, influenced his actions, and were inspired and championed by Roosevelt in both his public and private life. Of particular interest to me are the men who shared Roosevelt’s passion for the natural world and helped to promote the cause of conservation in the Progressive Era.
Roosevelt’s lifelong interest in observing wildlife in its natural habitat and collecting zoological specimens finds its echo in the life and work of Carl Akeley. A renowned taxidermist and biologist, Akeley worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York and accompanied Roosevelt on his 1909 expedition to Africa for the Smithsonian Institution. Sharing Roosevelt’s interest in conservation, Akeley worked to ensure the protection of gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Africa.
Although I did not encounter any correspondence between Roosevelt and Akeley during my cataloging, Roosevelt did talk about Akeley in an April 21, 1911, letter to another like-minded acquaintance, Henry Fairfield Osborn, influential paleontologist and president of the American Museum. In his letter to Osborn, Roosevelt expresses his concern over Akeley’s prolonged sojourn in Africa in pursuit of an elephant with 100 lb. tusks.
In the aforementioned letter, Roosevelt also informs Osborn that he plans to visit the American Museum in the next few days to see him and Frank Chapman. Frank Micheler Chapman was the curator of ornithology at the American Museum and founder of the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. In an April 24, 1911, letter, Roosevelt forwards several bird specimens to Chapman, asking if the birds - which he observed while visiting his son Archibald at his school in Mesa, Arizona - are cactus wrens.
Like Roosevelt, both Osborn and Chapman traveled extensively through the West. Another of Roosevelt’s acquaintances who shared a love of the West was Ernest Thompson Seton, a naturalist, artist, and prolific author. Seton founded the Woodcraft Indians, a youth group for boys that was instrumental in the development of the Boy Scouts, for which Seton served as the first Chief Scout. In an April 24, 1911, letter, Roosevelt’s secretary invites Seton to have lunch with Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill, as Roosevelt has much he is eager to discuss with Seton.
Another explorer of the American West was Charles Doolittle Walcott, a paleontologist who was influential in shaping the course of the Smithsonian Institution in the twentieth century. An April 21, 1911, letter to Walcott accompanies the gift of a hippo foot ink stand, a souvenir from Roosevelt’s African expedition for which Walcott, as Secretary of the Smithsonian, served as “chief.” Edmund Heller accompanied Roosevelt on that 1909 expedition to Africa, appointed by the Smithsonian as a naturalist. Heller accompanied or led numerous expeditions for the Smithsonian and other institutions, and in an April 21, 1911, letter to Heller, Roosevelt expresses his wish that he and his son Kermit could have an opportunity of making another journey in Heller’s company.
It was through the influence of Father John Augustine Zahm that Roosevelt and Kermit undertook the nearly disastrous 1913 Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition up South America’s River of Doubt. Zahm, a Catholic priest and author, wrote about his explorations of the natural wonders and cultural institutions of South America in a series of books published under the pen name H. J. Mozans. Roosevelt’s admiration of Zahm’s work led to their friendship and to Roosevelt’s authorship of an introduction to Zahm’s book, Along the Andes and down the Amazon.
These individuals certainly inspired and encouraged Roosevelt’s respect and love for the natural world, a respect and love that in turn propelled his pioneering advocacy for conservation. But they also shared with Roosevelt a curious, energetic intellect that valued a variety of knowledge and compelled them to take on many different roles throughout their lives: as scientists, authors, explorers, inventors, conservationists, and social reformers. It is no wonder that Roosevelt befriended such men, being as he was a statesman, author, naturalist, explorer, soldier, conservationist, and social reformer himself, and having in all of these different roles a profound effect upon America’s future.
Sara Shreve earned her MLS from Texas Woman's University in 2004 and a Certificate in Archival Studies from Emporia State University in 2013. She is currently working on an archival organization project and hopes to obtain additional experience working with digital archival collections in the future.